Pianist Ian Hobson in Review

Pianist Ian Hobson in Review

Downtown/Uptown Series: Preludes –Etudes –Variations, Ian Hobson in Recital
With spoken introduction by Paul Griffiths
Merkin Concert Hall, Kaufmann Arts Center; New York, NY
January 19, 2016


A good musician tries not to be too dazzled by encyclopedic repertoires – after all, it is how music is played that matters – but this listener has to confess to being dumbstruck by the sheer quantity of challenges in Ian Hobson’s latest 6-recital series in New York. From last October through this coming April, within a mere six months, he will have performed both books of Debussy’s Preludes plus complete Etudes, both books of Chopin Etudes plus complete Preludes, Rachmaninoff’s complete Preludes and complete Etudes (are you dizzy yet?), plus major sets of variations by Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Szymanowski and Fauré, and three world premieres by contemporary composers (Stephen Taylor, Robert Chumbley, and Yehudi Wyner). I’m sure I’m omitting something. What is more, the concerts all come on the heels of an enormous 2013-14 series, a 14-recital traversal of the complete solo and chamber music of Brahms. To have prepared such a large quantity of difficult repertoire in one’s career may not be unusual today, but to have it all performable on a high level in such short succession boggles the mind – and all is somehow managed on top of Mr. Hobson’s professorships and conducting appearances. One wonders what vitamins Mr. Hobson might be taking, and how one can get some immediately!

Of course, those who have followed Mr. Hobson’s career may already be aware of his penchant for pianistic feats. Since winning the First Prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1981, plus several important silver medals, Mr. Hobson has amassed a discography of over 60 releases, including the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven and Schumann, plus a complete edition of Brahms variations for piano. He is currently recording a complete edition of Chopin, of which Volume 9 has already received critical praise for “noble artistry” (Gramophone, July 2012).

Having been somewhat familiar with Mr. Hobson’s playing since my student days (when his recordings were some of the “reference” releases available in libraries), I can say that his playing has always struck me as technically strong, musically sound, reasonably grounded in scholarly study, and without any distracting eccentricities. It was therefore good to learn all these years later that he is still going strong, extremely strong!

His program selection was beautiful for this recital, pairing, as its pillars, Chopin’s Twenty-four Preludes, Op. 28, with the Rachmaninoff Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22. It is a natural pairing (in fact so natural that, for the sake of full disclosure, this reviewer performed and recorded that very pairing some nine years ago). Mr. Hobson additionally included Chopin’s Prelude in A-flat and Prelude in C-sharp minor Op. 45 (two welcome rarities in concert), plus a premiere of “Three Etudes (by any other name…)” by Robert Chumbley (b. 1954). The cohesiveness of the program was ideal, and the Chumbley work added an interesting modern-day perspective on the genre (if one can call it that) of the concert etude. Incidentally, the introductory speaker, Paul Griffiths, was eloquent and informative describing the history and characteristics of Etudes, Preludes and Variations, and it was the kind of evening perfectly designed to welcome the layperson into the realm of some of the greatest piano music ever composed.

Mr. Hobson’s performances themselves were taut and muscular, seemingly geared towards sustaining momentum and projecting with a very full sound, more often than drawing the listener in with intimacy or nuance. There was not a trace of self-indulgence to the performances – some would say a good thing – but I actually tend to like it when a performer “loses himself” in these miniatures. Though the momentum was an asset in the D-flat Prelude, which drags with many pianists, I longed for more poignant dreaming in the F-sharp major one, and perhaps more subtle piano shadings (as one also wanted in the G major). Some more details could have emerged in the storms of the F-sharp minor and B-flat minor ones as well.

It is possible that concert cycles may put pressure on a performer to keep things moving for the sake of uninitiated listeners. My neighbor in the audience began the evening by saying, “I hope these Chopin Preludes are short, because there sure are a lot of them.” One hopes that a performer will rarely need to think this way, but, as Mr. Griffiths mentioned, even Rachmaninoff had a penchant for omitting variations when the audience coughed too restlessly. I still maintain that when a performer surrenders to his artistic imagination, a listener generally can be trusted to follow suit, flu season notwithstanding. Much of Mr. Hobson’s playing was superb, as expected, but one hopes that his profusion of offerings this season will not diminish his savoring of each one.

There were high points, of course. Mr. Hobson seemed especially to relish the grace of the A major Prelude and the delicate (though treacherous) E-flat one. He sank deeply into the A-flat basses towards the end of the 17th Prelude, partly helped by the hall piano’s exceptional resonance, felt down to one’s toes. He engaged intensely in the drama of the Preludes in E-flat minor, F minor, and G minor, and the final Prelude in D minor was a wonderfully brilliant finale. The coruscating scales and thirds proved that Mr. Hobson is still very much a powerhouse.

The Rachmaninoff fared similarly well overall, but again flew by to the point where one missed some of its characteristic poetry and dreaming. Some opportunities for gentle lyricism were missed (and some messiness arose intermittently), though ultimately the work’s majesty did prevail. A large, appreciative audience was treated to an absolutely beautiful encore of the Kreisler-Rachmaninoff Liebesleid, played with winning charm and rubato worthy of the pianistic Golden Age. One eagerly awaits the next concert!